Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and SE Oregon - part II
We continued our long drive out to Owyhee Canyon, a place that Tor had bookmarked when he read a news article about it. It had sounded like an intriguing place - a beautiful landscape that was in need of more protection. It currently is BLM land, which is probably one of the lowest forms of government oversight for public lands. Still we wanted to see it, but hadn't done much research other than looking at a website that mentioned several places to camp and hike around. Even then we just vaguely familiarized ourselves with the area. So we drove in the general direction according to a free paper map of Oregon that we had picked up along the way. We both lacked cell service in the area, even in the small town of Jordan.
After some slight confusion as to which road to take out to the canyon, we followed the brown signs that read "Owyhee Canyon" along a well groomed gravel through private and public ranchland. Immediately off the highway, we spotted a light morph Ferruginous Hawk gliding low over the sagebrush. Further down the road, we spotted another one. At a fork in the road, one road went to the Jordan Craters and the other to the river. The sign warned of the need for 4 wheel drive and a high clearance vehicle, which I thought was odd since I had read that the place that we were aiming for was on an easy access road, making it a popular place to go. Still we took the fork to the Owyhee River, which crossed over another cattle guard and started its descent into the canyon.
The descent to Owyhee River was on a steep one lane gravel road. It wasn't what I imagined a popular road would look like, but with a white-knuckle grip of the steering wheel of our trusty Outback, we crawled down the canyon walls in first gear. Herds of cattle gathered around the road - grazing on the meager foliage that was still left and licking the blocks of salt. When not staring down at the precipitous gravel road, we took glimpses of the canyon walls that lay below us. Splashes and stripes of various colors and textures made up the towering rock walls. Excitement started to overgrow the stress of driving down this sheer road.
We reached a cluster of small dwellings and outbuildings that was Birch Creek Ranch, which I really didn't recall in my reading of the area, but I was just relieved to reach the bottom of the canyon and onto somewhat level ground. The road followed the canyon bottom a short distance to an irrigated field and a set of campsites along the river's edge. One other couple had set up camp and a couple of other cars whose owners were presumably floating down the river were the only other signs of human life in the area. Large cliffs of pinks, ivory and gray stood as the backdrop to the small campground. The Owyhee River snaked through blooming purple sage, four-wing saltbush, dwarf goldenbush, and big sage that dotted the canyon floor.
After setting up camp and harvesting some wild asparagus that grew on the banks of the river, we walked around the area to check out the posted signs and maps. Upon studying the map, I realized we weren't in the spot along the canyon that I had originally thought we were aiming for. This explained why the last 2 miles of the harrowing road were a lot less accessible than I expected. But we were in a remote beautiful location with hardly anyone around, so we really couldn't argue there. Plus I wasn't about to drive that road again anytime soon. We were staying.
Hiking along the river was rewarding both in scenery and birdlife. Around the curves in the river was another canyon wall of colored basalt or shale. A pair of Prairie Falcon circled the cliffs above the campground, along with innumerable Cliff Swallows and a smaller band of White-throated Swifts. White wash of a Turkey Vulutre roost coated the high ledges. Cinnamon Teal and Wood Ducks paddled in the shallows of the river, eager to escape our attention. In contrast, many pairs of Canada Goose would honk loudly and continuously upon our approach. A Pacific Rattlesnake was trying to enjoy a kangaroo rat meal, when we had blunder upon it. A large flock of Yellow-rumped Warblers and Lazuli Buntings gleaned the Siberian elms along the banks of the river.
We hiked back up the steep road we had driven down, following the dry Birch Creek below. The heavy hoofprints of overgrazing were easily seen throughout the area. This would be a truly magical place if it weren't for the overgrazing that has destroyed much of the ground cover and damaged the easily crumbling hillsides.
In the evening, Western Toads sang loudly from hidden spots among the shallows of the rocky river bed. Bats flew low, hawking up insects. As night set in, stars lit up the dark sky - pin pricks of white light against a black velvet shroud. As I looked up to admire the night sky, my brain was deeply confused by the sight it took in - a train of about 15 white lights of equal brightness moved in a straight path across the sky. Each one moved in sync with the next - spaced not perfectly, but in a close pattern. The words that escaped my mouth were - "what the fuck is that?" Not the most eloquent words, but enough to get Tor's attention. After the train of lights silently moved across the sky in a perfect line, they blinked out in one spot - one right after the other. We were both deeply confused and concerned - what was it and did this mean the aliens were finally going to take over earth? Without cell service, we couldn't look up the implications of this alien invasion. Maybe it was a rich asshole who was flying drones in the middle of the night for the hell of it. Maybe it was Santa Claus training the reindeer. We didn't know what to think and couldn't do anything about it.
The next day, we talked to our camping neighbors, who also saw the strange lights and didn't know what to think of it. At least we weren't the only crazy ones and we had another witness to this phenomenon. We stayed at Birch Creek Ranch for a second night, not really thinking we'd see the lights again, but around the same time, I looked up in the sky to see a line of lights moving in the same direction as before except they were spaced farther apart and much lower in the horizon. As we were both joking about how a rich asshole should spend his money and time in a more fruitful manor, Tor shouted "what the fuck?!" A longer line of 50-60 lights filled the night sky, traveling in a synchronized manner and blinking out in one location over the horizon. Okay, earth was being invaded, but at least we were away from civilization so we'd be some of the last people to get taken.
Fast forwarding to the punchline, because we didn't learn the truth of these phenomena until 2 nights later (the following night there was a storm and we couldn't see anything), when we were camping in Washington (well away from the "rich asshole" with the drones). We saw the train of lights yet again. This time with cell phone service, we were able to search for an explanation. Our explanation was half right - it was a rich asshole named Elon Musk, who had launched at least 2 series of satellites for his communications projects. Without much publicity, these satellites were launched into space and would slowly move apart and up higher over time. We were lucky (?) to witness this spectacle though it seemed to have terrified all the other people who saw it and didn't know about it. Talking to friends and family, they also had no idea this had happened. Thanks Elon for the heads up.
Personal ranting aside and back to our trip, after a 2-night stay at Birch Creek Ranch, we headed out of the canyon via the terrifying road, which wasn't scary going up as it was going down. We took the other fork in the road to Jordan Craters, which we could see in the distance as a field of dark craggy rocks. Pulling up to the craters, the field of dark craggy rocks were just that, but it was more extensive than I had originally thought. The main crater - Coffeepot Crater was quite sizable, much larger and deeper than those of Diamond Craters. Smaller craters pocked the area surrounding, but most of the lava field were hollow tubes, textured wrinkles, pits of unknown depth, and deep channels all set into stone. Although the last active lava flow was at least 100 years old, not much grew in the rock field. It was a sharp contrast to the yellow hillsides that were covered in blooming arrowleaf balsamroot.
Our next camping destination was also within the Owyhee Canyon area - though not on the river itself. Succor Creek State Natural Area was easier to find and not too far away. Unlike our previous nights' stay at Birch Creek Ranch, Succor Creek was occupied by many campers - tents and RVs alike. We set up camp next to the flowing creek and between the dark spires of the canyon walls. California Quail ran through the campsites and a Yellow Warbler sang from the dense willows. It was much hotter during the day, so an afternoon siesta in the shade of an elm tree only felt natural. Late afternoon clouds rolled in and only made it muggier. We decided to stretch our legs and walk around the area in the evening. In the tall grass along the creek, I scared (as much as it scared me) a Prairie western rattlesnake. It's striking dark pattern and aggressive disposition were enough to let us happily admire it from a safe distance. Above the canyon, we could see storms brewing in the distance. Sunset was spectacular with the dark blue clouds streaked in pinks and oranges, but just an indication of the impending storm. When the storm hit, it was rather sudden, intense and also brief. Despite all the signs, we weren't exactly prepared and our tent, which wasn't guy out, was flattened in the strong winds. Thankfully the poles were designed for it and popped back up without any indication of trauma. We retired to bed early, under the patter of fat raindrops on our rainfly.
Homeward bound - Toppenish NWR, etc
The next morning everything had dried out and we packed up under the cloudy but dry sky. We started our trek back home, trying to find a mid-way point to lessen the 9 hour drive home. It didn't exactly work out that way, but we did stop at Brooks Memorial State Park along highway 97 in Washington. While it is a rather large park, the campground is located on the northern side while the majority of the park with its extensive trail system (mainly for equestrian use) was separated by highway 97 on the southern end. The rather compact campground was nice enough - if you ignore the constant hum of the power lines and the roar of traffic on the highway. The forest was surprisingly nice with patches flowering of mahala mat, lupine, and hawksbeard coloring the pine needle floors. Large Douglas Firs protected the tent campers, while RV camping was relegated to power lines and young alders.
We walked around the campground, checking out "the ole big fir" and the mixed oak and conifer forest. But we didn't check out the larger section of the state park on the other side of the highway. That night we uncovered the mystery of lights in the sky. Rich asshole. It was surprisingly cold overnight, reaching freezing temperatures once more, but we packed up early in the morning and headed northward to home.
We stopped at Toppenish NWR. Being the first time we were at the refuge at a decent morning hour (not mid-day), we walked around the hiking trails that were open to us. The short trails circled around the southern end of the marshes and the headquarters. We heard more birds than we saw - listening to Pied-billed Grebes, Common Yellowthroats, and Virginia Rails call from the thick reeds. A Peregrine Falcon circled in the rising thermals. At the headquarters, we spotted two branching Great Horned Owls along with one of the parents. Many European Starlings took over all the nest boxes and were actively feeding their nestlings. A Black-headed Grosbeak stopped in the old orchard to taste a few tender cherry leaves.
After a lunch and birding stop at the Cle Elum railroad ponds, which were surprisingly busy with birders (and some birds), we headed back home. Our first trip since the pandemic hit was full of expected and unexpected moments, from the croaks of Sandhill Cranes to mystery lights at night to the startling warning of a rattlesnake in tall grass, I will cherish these memories an indication to light at the end of the tunnel or a hopefully closure to the past year's more troubling times.